I don't know exactly when it all happened, but I've become obsessed with collecting espresso cups over the years. So much so that I have easily over 1000 of them all over the place, and I even started cataloguing them over at Flickr. But above all the cups in my collection, illy collection cups top the heap. Five years ago, I wrote an article on this subject at the CoffeeGeek site and I guess the reason still holds true - if I spend so much time working on the drink, why would I accept anything less when it comes to what holds the drink?
How illy collections began
The entire illy art cup campaign began when the company changed the design of their signature espresso cup in 1991. Francesco Illy wanted a new cup to stand on its own as a work of art, but also to be functional, and he contracted artist Matteo Thun to design it. The "illy" cup, as a signature piece, was born.
The Illy family has always had a love and devotion for the arts, especially visual arts, and they saw these new cups as an opportunity to showcase some famous and upcoming talent. These were to belimited edition things, and while the concept of 2 or 3 new cup sets a year was not yet conceived, the idea of rare, limited cups with artist-commissioned works on them was the concept from the get go. In the first two years, two series called "arti e mestieri" were created, each featuring six cups with one artist doing one cup (total of twelve artists for the two years). After that it came (for the most part) down to a single artist doing a series. In some cases (like the PS1 series, Artistas do Brasil, and the Pistoletto Foundation series) it was different artists, but by and large each released series featured unique and individual works on one, two or six cups by the same artist.
Some of the most desired cups include the uber rare Naif cups done by Thun in 1991 (only 50 were made), and the special series cups, like Fosile, Venexia Gold or Platinum, and Federico Fellini's Ginger e Fred cups. Some of these can fetch $1000 or more on the open market (the Naif cups, so I've been told, can sell for $4000 or more).
Sometimes famous people are the artists (David Byrne, Federico Fellini, Sandro Chia), sometimes obscure (Peter Roesch, Norma J), and sometimes brand new (New York Public School #1, Artists of Brasil). Nowadays, every year sees at least 4 sets of espresso cups released, along with cappuccino cups, and some very limited edition cups. In 2005, illy introduced a new type of cup to the collection - their 8oz mugs.
illy art cup collecting is not for the faint of heart or the light of wallet. They are collectibles, with a fairly good resale value (more so in Europe than in N. America), and even the brand new sets are over $100 US dollars on average.
I currently (as of July 2007) have 91 illy collection sets - some are doubles (some are triples, and the Miss illy cup? I have four). I still have about 30 sets or so to get before I can call my collection complete, and of course, there's new sets each year.
Have a look at some more in-depth articles about illy cups, my collections and the ones I'm hesitantly ready to part with via sale or trade.